catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 21 :: 2003.11.07 — 2003.11.20


The Constantines shine a light

A couple of weeks ago one of our Torontonian friends (currently studying at NYU) asked Amanda and me if we wanted to check out one of her favorite bands at the CMJ Music Marathon. The band, who hails from the city of Guelph, Ontario, was scheduled to play a 3:00 pm concert at a tiny club on the Lower East Side. Having nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, and trusting Martha's musical tastes, we went. Thus, I was introduced to The Constantines.

To be truthful, I wasn't expecting much. A little pop-rock or some indie shoe-gazing tunes maybe. I was not expecting rock and roll. But on an itty-bitty platform on which all five members of the band could barely fit, The Constantines ripped through a set full of more energy, sincerity and drama than ever I've witnessed on a stage. It was fun to be there. It felt as if we were hearing and witnessing something big, something special. Now, if you're a regular reader of catapult, you may recall that I've sung the praises of rock and roll before. That's because I believe in it, and so do the Constantines, it would seem. After spending a few minutes shouting for an encore with the rest of the audience (we didn't get one in the interests of keeping the music marathon on schedule, but we did get an apology from the band and an invitation to their next show), I ran to a record store to buy all the Constantines albums I could find. As it happened, that was just one, since only a thousand copies of their eponymous debut were released in 2001 (in corrugated cardboard packaging that the band reportedly assembled themselves!). But their latest offering, Shine A Light was readily available. Friends, the album is nearly perfect.

An effort to describe the sound in writing: Bruce Springsteen by way of Tom Waits and The Pixies. Shine A Light is infused with a kind of literary tension, mixing unorthodox time signatures and rhythms with anthem-like choruses and weird, somewhat anachronistic words (e.g. comely, templar, insectivorous). The lyrics are cryptic and amazing and might occasionally be laughable if they weren't so blasted interesting within the context of the music. A sample: "Plant a paintbomb in the market/ Sing to the whispering bats/ Beneath the poison traffic/ Caught up in the wires/ Echolocation/ Calling targets out by name/ Spraycans and stencils/ Moonrats and flowerpot snakes." What's he talking about? Well, the album rocks so hard that it really doesn't matter. Also, like great abstract lyrics should, the lines make an illogical, nuanced sense all their own. Vocalist Bry Webb delivers his beat poetry over the band's heartbreaking noise in a way that simultaneously suggests earnest pleading and a holy anger about all that's wrong with the world. It sounds as if he (gasp) cares about what he's singing.

That may be what's best about this album. This is the opposite of self-absorbed, style-obsessed, pseudo-rock. More loose and passionate than their cousins The Strokes and Radiohead, The Constantines are emotionally available without being sentimental. Shine A Light promotes a wonderful sense of healthy abandon, very true to the spirit of rock and roll. Give 'em a shot. You haven't heard music this vital and interesting in a long time.

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